May 24


Leading on the Tightrope: Striking the Ultimate Balance Between Performance and Employee Satisfaction

By Sara Canaday

May 24, 2023

business leaders, leadership, leadership skills, self-awareness, workplace balance

I recently got to visit with a number of senior leaders after speaking at a leadership conference. Through multiple conversations, I noticed a pattern in their comments about the current challenges they are facing. It was the same thing I had been hearing from other leaders in a wide range of different industries. 

They all feel like they are suffocating under the weight of trying to prioritize both performance and employee satisfaction.  

On the one hand, they are facing ever-evolving expectations for meeting revenue goals, achieving higher performance standards, and maintaining customer loyalty.

On the other hand, these same leaders are being challenged to prioritize talent retention after the pandemic created a mass exodus in many organizations. That shift prompted employees to become more assertive and vocal about their needs and expectations. Managers consequently have felt intense pressure to create a more agreeable work environment and meet employee demands. The translation? Desperately trying to accommodate employees with everything from aligning corporate stances with social justice matters and facilitating flexible/remote work arrangements to extending leave privileges and providing robust mental health support.

While I’m a solid proponent of human-centered leadership, I also believe that over-emphasizing the employee experience can threaten the viability of a business. If we allow the pendulum to swing too far in either direction, everyone loses.

The solution is finding that delicate balance between meeting the employees’ needs and achieving the organization’s goals.

When leaders learn to embrace both sides of that equation rather than sacrificing one for the other, they can pave the way for success in a manner that benefits everyone involved. So what’s the best way to make that happen as a leader? Here are a few tips to consider:

1.    Be transparent about the realities of business.

Share key information (yes, even financial data) and strategies with your employees, so they understand the operational and financial challenges you are facing together as a team. Having that context will help them better align their expectations with the company’s goals. Plus, being more aware of the big picture may preemptively reduce unrealistic requests.

2.    Set clear expectations and boundaries upfront.

Communicate with your employees about what is (and what isn’t) acceptable in terms of flexibility with their roles and the work environment. For instance, if you generally allow employees to work remotely three days a week, you might also specify that Wednesday is in an in-office day for all, so the team has an opportunity for face-to-face interactions and relationship building. You can be flexible…to a certain point. Make sure your employees know where that point is.

Leaders also need to make it clear that expectations can change. In our ever-evolving business environment, conditions shift and requirements may need to adjust accordingly.

3.    Maintain your limits with respect and understanding.

Listen carefully to your employees when they come to you with concerns and requests. You may not be able to accommodate everything they ask for, but you can make them feel heard. If they are asking for something that doesn’t align with sustaining the business, provide a compassionate explanation and describe the reasons why a particular demand might not be feasible. In certain circumstances, consider offering some alternatives. Either way, the words and body language you use when holding your ground will go a long way toward demonstrating respect for the relationship despite a potential “no.”

4.    Allow employees to own how things get done.

People who are given a bigger role in the evolution of the company feel more responsible for the outcomes and report experiencing a stronger sense of meaning in their work. It can move employees from feeling like task-completers to having skin in the game, so to speak. As a leader, you can establish clear direction, provide the appropriate resources, and offer your support. Then step back and let your employees take ownership of how they reach certain goals. I realize it’s not possible to take that approach in every situation but, when you can, it’s a major win/win.

5.    Remember that a business isn’t a democracy.

Leaders are responsible for driving growth and getting results for their organizations. While employees’ opinions matter, each person in the company doesn’t get an equal vote on how to move forward. That’s up to you. But if you can channel the voices of your employees so they feel included and capitalize on their diversity of ideas while never losing sight of the ultimate goal, you can create an atmosphere where the business and the people who help make it run thrive simultaneously.

Leaders today shouldn’t feel forced to choose between performance and a positive employee experience. Striking a healthy balance between those two priorities is a tall order, but I believe it is possible.

How have you been balancing these two competing priorities? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Until next time,

Sara Canaday

About the author

Sara began her journey working full-time while she earned an MBA. As she climbed the ladder of corporate America, she repeatedly observed a surprising phenomenon: the most successful people weren’t necessarily the ones with the highest IQ or best job skills. She recognized instead that career advancement was much more closely linked with how people applied their knowledge and talents — their capacity to collaborate, communicate, and influence others.

Today, Sara is happily fulfilling that commitment as a keynote speaker, author, and executive coach. These venues have given her the opportunity to mentor and support thousands of people in diverse situations, inspiring many of them to move from insight to action with dramatic career results.

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